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College Applicants: Please, Get The Word "Perfect" Out Of Your Vocabulary.



There are many problems with focusing on "perfection," any one of which would be reason enough to toss the whole concept into the cosmic recycling bin. But in the specific context of college applications?


It will, almost certainly, hold you back.


Perfection DOES NOT EXIST. I can make a case for the existence of Santa Claus. I can give you a reasonable explanation for how legends of Pythagoras, or Saint Anthony, appearing in two locations simultaneously might have been true. I can mount a cogent argument for the existence of UFOs, the multiverse, or even really weird stuff, like decent, well-intentioned people in the upper tiers of government.


But perfection? Please. Perfection is an illusion we cling to because for some reason we believe being "perfect" will protect us from anything bad happening to us. Some very evolved humans can work with the idea of perfection, as an aspirational, open-hearted self-audit mechanism, while understanding it's a destination they'll never reach. Those people are, in my experience, rare. Usually, perfectionism is a defense mechanism, plain and simple.


Here's what perfectionism can do to your head, and not for nothin', your college applications.


1) It causes anxiety, depression, low self-worth and paralysis (and worse in some cases). I can't stress this enough. The best, fastest way to become "a failure" is to let perfectionism stage-manage your life. Nothing will ever be good enough, because perfect isn't real. And you'll find you're afraid to take risks. No one has ever mastered anything without failing at it first. No one. Please trust me: you won't be the first exception to that rule.


2) It makes you reliant on external validation, which is not a sustainable energy source. The outside world won't reliably give you the back-pats you're seeking, and when you invest your self-worth in external forces you cannot control, you relinquish your personal power and set the stage for academic, social and psychic misery. No one obsessed with being "perfect" changes the world, because the concept of "perfect" is predicated on the world that exists, and how you fit into it.


We don't need more people who fit the mold, guys. We need people to break it.


3) Ironically, "perfect" can make you look "basic" (or like a ticking bomb) on paper. Show me the application of an aspiring business major who has dutifully taken all the AP courses they were advised to, gotten relentless As on everything at all costs, is a student government figurehead, plays two varsity sports, is an Eagle Scout and a blackbelt in Aikido, scored in the 98th percentile on the SAT and has a pathologically polite essay about the time he went to Tijuana with a charitable group to build a shelter for an unhoused family and felt the happy glow of service to others. And I will show you someone who has not started questioning anything yet, and/or someone who is primed to go legitimately berserk the minute they hit college.


Look: you did what you were told. You did what everyone else was doing and tried your best to do it better than your buddies did. You did what people told you was going to make you look good to colleges, no matter how out of control it made your schedule or your relationships or your life. And not only did Stanford and Berkeley say no, so did a couple of schools you thought of as "safeties." Yikes! At a certain point, you have to wonder what would have happened if you'd been a little less "perfect" and a little more real, don't you?


Is an unweighted 4.0 a "perfect," straight-A grade point average? Yeah. Does having a 4.0 (or 4.5) GPA ensure you will get into your top choice college? No! Is it even the biggest indicator of where you'll get in? Not necessarily. It's somewhat predictive in some contexts. It isn't everything.


And consider this fun fact: you can't totally control your GPA, because your teachers are human beings and human factors come into how they grade. I personally had teachers who graded me down over "made up words" on essays, because I had a bigger vocabulary than they did. I've been graded down because a teacher plain didn't like me, or felt offended because I didn't look like I was paying attention. AND I've been graded down because I legitimately had no clue what I was doing, even if I was trying. Hell, you can get slammed on an assignment because your teacher is having a personal life meltdown. It happens! Do you really want your self-worth tied to THAT?


PS, I learned a lot from some of my most arbitrary and unfair teachers. Thanks, Dave, Steven, Sarah, and especially you, Louise! Mwah!


Standardized test scores can be "perfect," if by perfect you mean you got all the answers the test expected. And you can BUY that (yeah, I said "buy") if you want to. It's not even that expensive: if you can't afford a personal test-prep coach, you can literally sit down with a pile of practice tests, get out your timer, and pound them out until you have reverse engineered every question. That's how I aced the GRE's logic section, and I'm a freaking poet. My follow-up question would be "And does that test score reflect something important about who you are or what you actually know?" Take your time answering, I can wait.


And by the way, how many sports you do, how many clubs you're in charge of, how many volunteer hours you have bagged and how many extracurriculars you take on doesn't reliably contribute to "perfection" on the soft-skills side of the application either. Believe it or not, lots of admissions screeners like to see things like consistent focus on a specific passion (you have no time for community service, because you train four hours a night with a ballet company and need the weekends to catch up on your homework), eagerness to embrace out-of-comfort-zone endeavors (you dumped Girl Scouts before you did a Gold Award project, because you've always been scared of the ocean and suddenly decided you had to get over it and master longboard surfing), or the ability to make intriguing connections (an old poem you read in AP Lit led you to a bizarre but plausible theory on the nature of dark matter, and you want in to the physics department to see if your theory holds water).


I'm not saying "be a slacker and expect to get the red carpet from every college you apply to." There's a huge difference between "perfect" and "excellent." Excellence is the authentic product of inspiration, motivation and follow-through. It's attainable and it's unmistakable. Will it always get you the precise outcome you want? Of course not, silly. The world has never worked like that and it won't, any time soon.


I am saying: being yourself is enough. "Best self" is ideal, but if anyone tells you you "have to be perfect" to get into your college of choice, please be careful. And if you're telling yourself that pernicious lie, be really careful—and get help if you need to. Perfectionism is a dangerous mental prison, and therapy to help you bust out of it is money well spent.


Perfection isn't real, so you might as well stop chasing it, or worrying that everyone else is somehow attaining it. Unfair though it might be, hard work and good intentions do not guarantee any of us external validation—in the form of college acceptances or in any other form. So... create applications you're proud of and let that be enough. There's no such thing as true failure in this arena either. And there's never such a thing as being so perfect you're rejection-proof. But "successful" is definitely a thing, and learning to see opportunity in frustrating outcomes is a skeleton key to that.

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